Tag Archives: Actor’s Playhouse

How to play the piano

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I had the best of Godfathers his name was Collin Bates.

Collin was Australian, spent the middle years of his life in England, and was one of the finest jazz pianists that ever lived. He also took his Godfatherly duties seriously and from time to time he would sit me down and we’d have a conversation that began, “As your spiritual advisor and mentor …” Then he would explain his position as a life-long agnostic, and declare his belief that the truth would be revealed to him on the point of death. With the certainty of youth I somewhat scoffed at this view, but as time passes and my certainty about most things dissolves, I see his wisdom. This is a tangent by the way …

… Check him out playing a boogie-boogie number on British TV here

His piano playing style was variously described in print as “a squirrel gathering nuts” and my personal favorite in a long article, a passage about his stubby fingers transforming when he sat at the keyboard into “dancing sausages” making amazing music.

He was life-long sufferer of what George Melly (singing in the video linked above) described as the “existential conspiracy”. This meant that when Collin walked into rooms, tables and chairs would start hurling themselves about, and glasses of red wine would inevitably spill on white tablecloths. I personally witnessed him make a gin and tonic spontaneously combust, and watching him make coffee was to see coffee grounds on the ceiling. I once foolishly gave him an expensive bow tie as a Christmas present, his face fell when he saw it, and we both knew that his clumsy fingers would never master the complexity of the right knot.

But at the piano he was elegant, delicate, nuanced and subtle. That video again, in case you missed it: here

I grew up watching Collin play the piano. I went to Ronnie Scott’s (now closed), the Merlin’s Cave (now closed), and when I waited tables in my youth at Flanagans in Baker Street he played the piano there. He played jolly-cockney type songs as Flanagans was the first theme restaurant in London, billed as an Edwardian song and supper room. One night Collin came storming down the aisle, “That’s the Evening Standard jazz critic on table 19.”

“Oh?”

“What a disaster. Here I am playing in a sawdust joint.”

“Can’t you play some jazz?”

“Of course not! It’s an Edwardian restaurant.”

As in all the most interesting people he was a mass of instant contradictions. He went back to the piano and began to play boogie-woogie. He played and he played. It went on for about twenty minutes. I never saw him play like that before or since. It was as if the piano had gone into space and was dancing between the moons of Mars and the outer planets.

The place was full and everybody stopped eating. All the staff stood still and listened. A crazy celebration of liquid rhythm pervaded, bouncing exuberance off the walls. At the end there was an eruption of applause which took a long time to subside. When it did Collin and the Evening Standard jazz critic shared a bottle of wine.

And that was all I knew about playing the piano. Until now …

End of the Rainbow is a fine play. It features Judy Garland in her last year of life. Three men play the other parts—a bit like Dorothy and her three companions. We close today after a three week run at the Actor’s Playhouse in Coral Gables, Sth Florida.

I play Anthony. The character is fictional. He’s an amalgam of all the gay men who adored Judy. He’s Scottish and he’s her favorite accompanist. I’m not Scottish and I’d like to say in these times of homophobic nonsense, playing a gay man is as much fun as a straight man can have and stay legal.

All that aside, crucially I don’t play the piano.

The excellent and supremely patient Dave Nagy, our musical director tutored me to the limits of my ability, such that I can vaguely follow the musical notation and have some idea of where the hands should be. I try to tap my feet in time, but one scene requires me to cue the band and conduct them. Early in the run I told them under no circumstances to look at me for the timing, fortunately Gary, who plays the sax said, “Oh we stopped doing that days ago.”

Did I get away with it? Well the piano was discretely angled, and during the musical numbers, such was Kathy St. George’s voltage that all eyes were turned upon her, and fortunately no one looking at me!

I get worried sometimes. When I review these pages, I see that I’m loving being an actor. Believe me, if you were a stage actor it would worry you too. Always at the back my mind, I’ve thought that sooner or later I’ll be doing something sensible, responsible, grown-up. It’s getting late … so maybe I’m stuck with it, and if every gig was a special as this one was, that’s fine.

Anthony begins the play from a point of adoration, and over time falls in love with Judy, finally declaring it at the end. Playing with Kathy St. George, no actor ever had an easier task. She is not Judy Garland—no one could be, that is sort of the point—but she has a great talent all her own, and she channels Miss Garland in way that borders uncanny. On top of all that she is one of the most gracious, generous, (and at 4′ 11″—the same height as Judy, tiniest) leading ladies I’ve ever worked with. http://www.kathystgeorge.com available for Judy cabaret and more!

The show was well reviewed. More than well …

This for example or this, or this

The patrons who attended the amazing Miracle Theatre with its Art Deco foyer, loved the show, many moved to tears …

There she is with The Tinman … the fabulous Terry M Cain3d72de7a805b400d3e3039b9b7ccd440

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And The Scarecrow … the splendid Michael Laurino

 

 

And is that me, the Cowardly Lion?

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It was a standout gig.

But when it came to playing the piano, I remember my Godfather, Collin Bates and the great gift of being able to watch him at the keyboard.

A Tale of Two Motor Cars and a Lot of Places to Stay

Once upon a time when the world was young, there was a beautiful small green car. It was built in 1961 when I was five years old. And I bought it from a fellow-student—his aunt actually—when I graduated college.

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“This was owned by a little old lady who kept it in a garage and used it once a week to go to the shops.” said my friend Jeff when I dropped in on him in the Yorkshire Dales on my way north.

“How did you know?”

“There’s no other possible explanation.” he said.

Together, the little green car and I went all over Britain. Delivered by ‘Molly’ as I called her, I stayed in youth hostels, once in gymnasium with a dozen other actors on June 21st at the St. Magnus Festival, and once in a monastery on the Isle of Iona. I loved that car and felt as though I was born to drive her. She was a Wolseley 1500. They don’t make them any more.

And once … I left London for Birmingham to play Herbert Pocket in Great Expectations,  and Molly broke down somewhere on the M1 motorway. Towed by emergency services I arrived seven hours later at midnight at the residence of Mrs. Madge Morose. She was a theatrical landlady straight from central casting. Sitting in her bed surrounded by enough medication to sink a chemist, she directed me up unlit stairs to a dark room with damp nylon sheets on the lumpy bed. Her appropriately Dickension house came complete with a name over the door:

Dunroamin’

“Er, no.” I told myself.

And when Robin, the senior actor in the company and veteran of many tours, said at rehearsal the next morning, “How are your digs? Mine are pretty bloody!”

I knew I had to find a better place to sleep. Since then …

Hotels, motels, hostels, spare rooms with and without en suite, on sofas, in attics, lofts, and raw spaces. In borrowed houses, in bed & breakfasts, on a 16th floor balcony open to the air. On a beach, on a hillside. On planes, trains, and the back of rental cars, on a ship. In a palazzo, in corporate apartments, and in friends’ ones with and without views. In a chalet, in a shed, in funky studios covered with Clematis. In a room with African masks full of presence. All alone in a town house worth $10 million for just one night, and also for just one night on the marble floor of the Boston South Station bus terminal, the quality of sleep not dissimilar in these last two venues?!

But not till now …

Me and my purple shirt (see November ’13 entry) are back in South Florida. In Miami actually, at The Actor’s Playhouse where I’ve never worked before. As with every theatre there’s a story. They’ve just closed a play called ‘Making God Laugh’. I mention it here because I knew three of the five actors in the show, and now that I’ve seen it, I know them all. This was a production which achieved a unity of style in the splendid acting, the delicious design, and the expert direction, in such a way that sitting there as an actor watching … well … I remembered why we do it. I forget sometimes.

I’ve said it before in these pages, a theatre, any theatre is a triumph of the improbable over the impossible.

The show we’re currently rehearsing is “End of the Rainbow” it’s about Judy Garland’s last comeback. The script is by turns poignant, funny, tragic; a tribute to one of the great talents of the 20th century. The extraordinary Kathy St. George is Judy. It is a role she was born to play. I am excited to share a stage with her.

Dave Arisco directs. A remarkably good natured and enthusiastic man. To the extent that if you’re called late to rehearsal you’re minded to go in early so as not to miss any of the jokes.

Here’s a candid from the rehearsal room.

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Dave is 6’4″, Kathy is 4’11”, I think they do a great double act.

But I digress.

What I really wanted to mention was this:

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You see before you a four bedroom house circa 1960 set amidst a couple of lush acres. There are two wings with two bedrooms in each, there’s a huge kitchen with state of the art equipment (1960). And the lounge and the hall and the sitting room each have a piano. Which is useful, I’ll say why later. At the time of writing I am the only occupant, if you transit Miami, Florida before February 9th consider yourself invited.

And you should see the back. There’s a large patio, the sort of place where you could write The Great American Paragraph. There’s a tennis court under the pines. There’s a rockery and shaped swimming pool. It would be an ideal location for an infomercial about the untold millions you can make by flipping real estate. I can’t show it to you yet because the pool has been drained for repairs and it doesn’t look pretty—maybe next month.

This sort of exotic theatrical digs goes a long way to ease the trials of the road. Previous details when arriving in actor housing have included; a bath with no plug, a water filter with no filter, and a bottle of wine with no corkscrew. And we won’t mention the dead mice, the empty beer bottles, the colonies of ants. None of these inconveniences applies in this case.

And even if not 100% of the lights are working, it doesn’t matter because …

Now let’s talk about this:

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That, ladies and gentlemen is a red Lexus. For my time on this show, I am driving it.

There’s not much to say except that it’s a cherry on the cupcake of the gig. It’s a piquant morsel from life’s smorgasbord. It’s a … you get the idea.

There are ascetic types (somewhere), who’ll tell you that the trappings of wealth and luxury are not the source of true happiness. I’ll tell you what, It works for me!

Another car I was born to drive.

Happy New Year!

Purple is the new blue!

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From Miami to Jupiter is about eighty miles by road. The distance defines the south and north ends of the coastal megalopolis on South Florida’s Atlantic side and the drive is not for those without extensive hi-speed video game experience. The mode of driving on I95 or the alternative Turnpike, is of ducking and weaving across lanes, tailgating at 30% beyond the speed limit, and giving signals is seen as a sign of weakness.

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‘Dial M For Murder’ at The Maltz Theatre, Jupiter, was a spirited and stylish production. All praise to our designers who achieved a unity of style. Michael D’Amico displaying his usual virtuosity with the set, Robin McGee coming up with a truly stunning dress for Claire Brownell who played Margot with an understated grace, also achieving in her performance a rare period authenticity threaded with genuine inner life (possibly the most difficult role in the play). Costume designer Robin, also chose her suits for my character so well then when offered a deal I immediately purchased them both. And special kudos to Paul Miller who did the lighting.

Do you recognize the silhouette?
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It’s a moment of homage to the late great Alfred Hitchcock whose name is more associated with this 1952 thriller than that of its author, Frederick Knott. And in a quasi-accidental moment during tech I passed in front of a lamp and the director yelled “hold it!” The resulting shadow was incorporated into the final tense moments of the play, giving an unexpected humorous twist, and a unique reference. Audiences loved it.

The Maltz as helmed by Andrew Kato is an impressive operation. They’ve taken special care to make their visiting artists feel valued, included and at home. Little touches like the bottle of water and the orange which greet you off the plane! It is also flourishing after an extensive renovation with plans for more development to come. It’s great to see a theatre sufficiently valued by its community to be able to expand, and not as is widely the case presently, to be scaling down operations.

Florida has been good to me, and I love going there to be in plays. The mighty United States has a few actual theatrical companies. Nothing like what you could guess at or hope for, given the might and wealth of The Republic. But South Florida has a core of talented actors who work up and down the strip from Miami to the Maltz weathering the closing of Equity theatres (ones that can pay something meaningful) and the springing up of non-Equity ones (that cannot). The effect, and I don’t think it was anybody’s plan, is close to a company of actors. A mobile, a fluid one that spans half a dozen venues. It’s always good to work with actors who know each other. There’s a shorthand. Todd, Greg, Jim, and Dan… do you know what I mean?

Whilst in Jupiter, I got a call from David Arisco, artistic director of the Actor’s Playhouse in Coral Gables, south of downtown Miami. Would I be interested in reading for a part in the show about Judy Garland that played to great acclaim in London and New York?

David offered me a role in 2003 and I wasn’t available, and I’d always wanted to work at his theatre. Besides, I knew there wasn’t really enough excitement in my life, so I hired a car, got a free upgrade to a sleek late-model Cadillac and cruised down to Miami getting the complete hazard experience on the road. I stayed one night in Miami Beach. Nowhere in Florida does pastels better. The limes, the magentas, the ochres …

I packed in a hurry and forgot to take a fresh shirt. In the morning the one shirt I had with me had lost its appeal and there may have been a coffee spill on it too. “I’ll buy a new shirt.” I told myself.

“Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes.” So said Henry David Thoreau,19th century transcendentalist. Perhaps if he’d seen the South Beach pastels he’d have made an exception.

I entered a gentleman’s clothing store and explained that I was looking for a shirt to wear to an interview. I was slightly pressed for time.

“Oh!” said the assistant.

I explained that it was to audition to play a Scottish homosexual who accompanied Judy Garland.

“That sounds exciting!” he said and pulled a dress shirt in bright purple with a price tag beyond what I normally would have spent.

“I’m not sure about the color.” I said.

“Purple is the new blue!” He exclaimed. “I will iron it for you.”

It was all worth it. The dangerous drive, and the retail time pressure that made me an easy sell, because I will return to Miami at the end of the year to play Anthony in ‘End of the Rainbow’.

Purple is the new blue. Gay is the new straight. But if Antarctica melts, Florida and all its pastels will be the new Atlantis.

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